Written by Kenneth J. DeWoskin

Professor Harriet C. Mills, who passed away March 5, 2016 at the age of 95, was a widely admired figure in the first generation of post-war China scholars and a luminary in the early history of Chinese studies at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (and its forerunner, the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literatures) and the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan.

Professor Mills received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1963 and joined the faculty at Michigan in 1966 after brief roles at Columbia and Cornell, retiring twenty-four years later in 1990. With a focus on applied linguistics and Chinese language pedagogy, as well as modern Chinese literature, Professor Mills was a major architect of Michigan’s Chinese program during the critical years in which China reopened to the world for travel and scholarly exchange.

Professor Mills’ comprehensive three-volume Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese, the first volume of which was published by Cornell University Press in 1967, was a path-breaking text that enabled a generation of young scholars to achieve meaningful mastery of China’s difficult writing system. Among the innovations in her work was the use of detailed, hierarchical glossaries that helped students understand how the written Chinese language subtly differentiated meanings through the organic process of conjoining single characters into binomes. This pedagogical advance equipped students with the ability to leverage their mastery of the language to professionally serviceable levels more efficiently than ever before.

Reared in a missionary family with multigenerational ties to China, Professor Mills was an exemplar of the way in which tumultuous events in the Pacific and the civil war in China shaped and reshaped the personal lives and academic careers of many in her generation. She was born in Tokyo before her family moved to China, where Professor Mills attended American schools in Nanjing and Shanghai before attending and receiving her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley in 1941. 

She was a Fulbright scholar in Beijing in the first years following Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Uncertainty surrounding the potential relationship between the PRC and the US became blatant hostility with the beginnings of the Korean War in 1950, leading to her unsuccessful attempt to leave China and then her arrest and imprisonment in July 1951, charged with espionage.  While the details of what she and the handful of other Fulbright scholars were doing will never be fully known, it is possible if not probable that they were guilty of little more than bicycling around Beijing and being familiar with the roads, bridges, and other components of Beijing’s transportation infrastructure.  Some say they sketched maps.

More than four years later, Professor Mills was diagnosed with tuberculosis, released from prison, and walked to freedom across the Lo Wu Bridge from Guangdong to Hong Kong’s New Territories into the care of US consular officials. There have been several studies of her years in what was at the time called “brainwashing prison” and studies of the process itself. Perhaps the most substantial is Robert J. Lifton’s 1962 study, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, which includes a chapter about her prison years, a study in which Lifton thinly disguises her as a Canadian school teacher.

Professor Mills celebrated the tenth anniversary of her release in Taipei, where she was director of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Study on the campus of National Taiwan University for the academic year of 1965-66. At a small dinner party with friends, she recounted those events with a total lack of rancor or remorse, indeed praising the changes that Mao had brought to China and the end of the chaos of China’s civil war. As she sat safely in the capital of the Republic of China at this anniversary dinner, she did not mention any details of her internment. She reflected on crossing the bridge and how satisfying it was to get on with the development of her professional life. It was not that she was in denial of these events. It was that she did not see them as in any way the single most definitive event of her personal story and life. They were important to her. But they were what they were and did not push her emotional response to China to one extreme or the other.

Years later, Professor Mills would begin a series of biennial “bag lunches” at Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies in which she would recount and comment on her four years in Beijing prison.  Throughout these 1970s and 1980s, those talks were an important institution at the Center, not only for what they showed of her experience and courage but also for what they told about her personal witness to the early history of the PRC. While students ate sandwiches out of brown bags, Professor Mills would describe the series of physical and mental torments to which she was subjected, things like having her hands tied behind her back for several weeks with a toothbrush tied to her shoulder, or hours of sleep-deprived interrogations, discussions, and forced confessions not only about the espionage charges but also the broader theme of the privilege she and her family enjoyed for decades at the expense of the long-suffering Chinese people. For all she endured, she reflected not a modicum of bitterness about the experience, and, while not exactly expressing gratitude, she would always comment that those years taught her much about the Chinese experience of foreign presence in the century following the first of the Unequal Treaties that partitioned large swaths of major port cities into foreign concessions.  Subsequently, she was not shy about relating select tales from her prison years, but she did not make them a central feature of her many professional and personal relationships.  

Those years in Beijing also honed her language skills to a uniquely high level; she regarded her long interrogation sessions as language drills, among other things. While it would be an exaggeration to say this shaped her classroom demeanor, she ran her classes with a determination and discipline that was unparalleled. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Professor Mills was a mainstay of the Chinese language and literature program at the University of Michigan. She trained numerous students, many of whom became major scholars in diverse fields of Chinese studies. Professor Mills was known to be a demanding teacher, with unimpeachable command of her subject, and hard on students who did not prepare thoroughly and take the classes as seriously as she did. One is tempted to say she was a “take no prisoners” instructor.

Those years saw the Chinese language program evolve from a small service to a few special interest students to a burgeoning program training hundreds of Chinese language students a year, networked into the University’s broad system of departments and professional schools. It is impossible to overstate the contributions she made in terms of course development and sequencing, pedagogy, faculty development, and program discipline.  

Professor Mills made her first trip back to China in the early 1980's. The trip was much anticipated not only by her but by her colleagues. It was not something she promoted as a particularly important event, but it was.  She departed visibly anxious and returned visibly reassured. She had nothing to say that was obviously important but many things to say that were subtly very important. She found a China that was culturally and socially transformed, mostly in good ways but in a few ways she found distressing. Deng’s new China was indeed very different from the unstable and unpredictable world she knew from the 1940s and early 1950s. She said she felt no fear there.

China was just learning to deal with foreign tourists, and in the State-owned restaurants in airports and train stations there were two menus, one for locals and one for foreigners. There were simple offerings for locals and “banquet” offerings for foreigners. It was almost impossible for foreigners to order the local bowl of noodles (which of course cost one fiftieth of the foreign banquet price).

Professor Mills described how in the new China she fought this lack of menu choice fiercely, arguing that she had earned the right to the local noodles.

That was a claim that few of us who knew her and admired her could ever dispute.

Written by Paul Ropp

Harriet Mills was the head instructor in my first-year intensive Chinese course at the University of Michigan in the summer of 1967. She was always very formal, never called me anything but Mr. Ropp, and she had no tolerance for anyone who came to class unprepared. Sometime that summer I heard that she had been in prison in Beijing in the early 1950s, but she never would talk about it. Then, after we had been to Taiwan for year in 1968-69, and while I was studying for my PhD exams, I think it must have been 1971 (unless it was later when I was writing my dissertation in the spring of 1973) she gave a remarkable talk at one of the beer and pretzel nights sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies. She spoke in great detail and with almost shocking candor about her imprisonment and the effect it had on her entire life.

She had grown up in a missionary family, and once she found herself in prison she was pressured to confess that she had been a spy for the US. She was living with Chinese women prisoners who were mostly illiterate, and part of her work was to teach these women to read and write. Her Fulbright colleagues, Allyn and Adele Rickett, were also imprisoned at the same time but they had no contact with each other. She was questioned, sometimes under duress, sleep deprived, and at times with her hands tied behind her back, and made to write out her confession. At first she resisted, but she gradually came to admit that yes, she had hoped the Nationalist armies would prevail, and yes, she had gone to diplomatic parties and receptions and exchanged the latest gossip with other Westerners in attendance. And she had to admit, during her youth she had once remarked that yes, she would like to live in China after she grew up because she liked having her shoes shined. So she gradually started to identify more and more with her captors, and one of the most important factors was her work with the illiterate women she shared the cell with. These women were imprisoned for petty theft, for prostitution, or for having husbands who were Nationalist Party members. Teaching these women basic literacy was very exciting as she saw them slowly transformed from feeling like despairing failures to having a sense of hope that they might contribute to a help build a new society in China.

She said a major turning point came one night when she was sleep deprived and feeling very weak and was told that Allyn Rickett had confessed to being a spy. He had served in the US armed forces (I forget which branch—his story is in Prisoners of Liberation that he wrote with his wife Adele). She said, at that point, her willpower collapsed and she made a false confession. Then she said, astonishing everyone present, “That night I lost my self-respect and I’ve never quite gained it back.” She went on to say, the day her Chinese guards walked by the cells carrying bayonets made in China (to replace the American bayonets they had been carrying), “I felt a great swelling of pride inside me!” She also said the energy her Chinese cellmates poured into the task of learning to read and write made her feel guilty for not having worked as they did in her comfortable youth in China. (That also helped explain her utter impatience with lazy American students!

One day, out of the blue, she was told to gather her belongings, and she was taken to stand before a judge. For all she knew she was about to be sentenced to death. The judge proceeded to say she had been a reasonably good prisoner, and had confessed to her wrongdoing, even though she may have understated some things. He then said she was sentenced to five (or four, whichever it was) years in prison which she had already served, so she was now free to leave China by train to Hong Kong. She said her first thought was to say “No, I want to stay in China and help build the new society.” But she quickly realized if she did that she would never see her family again, so she agreed to leave.

Once she arrived in Hong Kong and it was clear she identified with the Chinese government, she was described by reporters as “badly brainwashed.” She went on to say that although she was mistreated in prison, the prison authorities also pointed out the torture rings in the ceiling which had been used by the Nationalists, and she was never subjected to beatings or any other kind of physical abuse. She then also noted that the Ricketts, after going through a similar experience, had become politically active in ways she never did. So in some ways she continued to feel guilty for not acting more on her convictions. Robert Jay Lifton describes her (using a pseudonym) in his book on Thought Reform and ties her susceptibility to “brain-washing” to her stern Presbyterian background and its emphasis on sin and guilt. And while there is no doubt some truth in that connection with Protestant Christian guilt, I think Lifton totally missed the point that Harriet saw some valid and uplifting transformations in her fellow women prisoners.

So I’ve always felt gratitude for having had her as an instructor, and for the chance to know her and to hear her remarkable story. I don’t think she had anything at all to feel guilty about!